On Native Ground: TIME TO FIX OUR NATION'S ELECTORAL SYSTEM
by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- The first step in finding asolution to a problem=
is admitting there is a problem.
As the events of the past few weeks havedemonstrated, this nation's= electoral system is amess. But regardless of your feelings about theoutcom= e, this whole experience will have been a wasteof our time and energy if we= don't learn from themistakes and work on correcting them.
Before we get to the mechanics of holding anelection, let's begin w= ith the way we select andnominate our candidates. Why did we end up this ye= arwith a choice between Al Gore and George W. Bush?Because of a process tha= t rewards the candidate thatraises money fastest while promoting an agendad= esigned to offend the fewest people.
Do you want to run for president in 2004? Startshaking down people = now, because you will have to haveat least $25 million in hand by the fall = of 2003 soyou can be in a position to run in your party'sprimary. Running f= or Congress, the U.S. Senate orgovernor can cost anywhere between $1 millio= n and $50million depending on where you live.
That's why campaign finance reform and public fundingof election ca= mpaigns ought to be a priority. When bigmoney is removed from politics, oth= er voices can beheard. When big money dominates politics, you getcandidates= like Gore and Bush that pander to theirpolitical patrons.
Give the voters a choice between two dismal anduninspiring candidat= es, and combine that with awinner-take-all system that doesn't give third p= artiesany electoral standing, and what you end up with ispathetically low v= oter turnouts.
About 49 percent of the registered voters nationwidedidn't vote th= is year. Many didn't because they'redisgusted with politics, or because the= y're lazy orcan't be bothered with the process. But there aremillions in th= at 49 percent who wanted to vote, butcan't. There are about 5 million Ameri= cans -- many ofthem black or Hispanic -- who are permanently barredfrom vot= ing because of felony convictions, mostly fordrug offenses. There are milli= ons more who arediscouraged from voting due to arcane and selectivelyenforc= ed election laws.
Most politicians won't admit it, but they prefer lowvoter turnouts= . Every action taken the last 100 yearsto expand the electorate -- women'= s suffrage, theVoting Rights Act, lowering the voting age to 18 --had been = vehemently opposed by those in power. They'rehappy with a system that is ar= chaic, restrictive andeasily manipulated.
It shouldn't be that difficult to vote. The rulesshould be as non-r= estrictive as possible, startingwith same-day voter registration. If you sh= ow up at apolling place and can prove you live in that town, youshould be a= ble to vote. As for banning felons fromvoting, I ask this simple question: = how are you goingbring someone back into society to become a productiveciti= zen if you permanently take away one of his mostimportant rights?
The ballot itself could use some tweaking. Canadaheld a national el= ection last month. It took only fourhours to count 13 million paper ballots= that were castat 50,000 polling stations across that vast nation.There wer= e no confusing punch cards or balky votingmachines in Canada. Their electio= n went smoothlybecause there is one standard paper ballot design thatis use= d by every province. There should be onestandard paper ballot design in thi= s country too.
The last change that's needed is an end to thewinner-take -all rule= s that favor the two majorparties. This means using proportional representa= tionin legislative races and instant runoff voting (IRV)for executive races= .
Most of the world's democracies use some form of proportional repre= sentation. This means that a political party that wins 10 percent of the vo= te wins 10 percent of the legislative seats. Doing this makes voting for a = third party candidate more than just an act of protest. Instead, it would g= ive third parties a voice in the legislative process and get more voters in= volved in the democratic process.
Australia, England and Ireland all use IRV. Here's how it works. Vo= ters pick their first choice on their ballot plus their second and third ch= oices. If a candidate gets a majority of the first choices, the election en= ds. If not, the candidate that gets the fewest votes is eliminated and a ru= noff round begins.In this second count, each ballot counts for the top-rank= ed candidates still in the race. If there still isn't a winner, the counts = continue until there is a majority winner.
As with proportional representation, IRV gives third parties a grea= ter role in elections and enables them to form coalitions with established = political parties. For example, if IRV were used in this year's election, p= rogressives wouldn't have had to agonize over choosing between Gore and Ral= ph Nader. Nader voters could picked Gore as their second choice, and Gore w= ould've have won in a runoff vote in many states. Instead of a vote "thrown= away," IRV would have created a Green-Democratic coalition and helped Demo= crats to retake Congress.
The chances of all these things happening on the federal level seem= remote with a Republican-controlledCongress. The winners always love a sys= tem that allowsthem to win. On the state level, there is a greater chance o= f seeing reform.
All 50 states could implement IRV for every election, including th= e presidency, without changing any federallaws or the U.S. Constitution and= several states are considering IRV. As for public financing of elections, = several states have approved some sort of system and others are considering= it.
If we truly want a democracy where every person has avoice, change= s are needed. Without change, you canguarantee that the 2004 election will = be even worsethan this year's dismal and depressing contest. Changestarts w= ith making our electoral process fair, openand accessible to all.
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist inNew England for more than 20 = years, and recently graduatedfrpm the Kennedy School of Government. He edit= ed "TheGeorge Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books).